Hegel – Democracy as its Opposite (the French Revolution)

What do we mean when we say “freedom?” Do we mean freedom to live in peace and quiet? Freedom to live under a government with checks and balances? Or do we mean free to participate in the decision-making processes of our government?

Hobbes and Hume were concerned with the Utility of government. As long as the government did a good enough job maintaining the peace, one could go about their life. But as Europe awakened to the idea that government may not be divinely empowered, some began to ask questions like,  

If the king and the government is made up of just a bunch of people, why should I be content with allowing my family to starve to death? Shouldn’t the government reflect my will, or at least the majority (universal) will? Shouldn’t I be able to live a life free from fear of starvation? What is stopping us from creating a new world, previously unimaginable, in which all men are actually equal? 

These ideas were initially small and quiet, at the beginning of the French Revolution, but they grew louder and more insistent. Eventually Robespierre, the Jacobins, and the “Mountain,” (political parties associated with the far left) defended and represented these voices calling for democracy and equality. Hegel calls them the voice of absolute freedom, and details how absolute freedom turned into its opposite, the voice of a faction, acting as a dictatorship, destroying the nuances and distinctions of French culture, and killing thousands of innocent people.

He says France should have built a Republic with checks and balances between the different classes. If they had, they could have avoided a lot of tears and bloodshed. But he recognizes this “should have” is naïve. Nothing could have convinced the sans culottes to “fear the lord” (those in power). As their power was strengthened, and their vision of a new, better world became more and more real, nothing anyone said could have stopped them. In fact, Hegel argues that humanity may have to relearn the lesson of the French Revolution over and over again. The lesson that they should learn is that the nuances of class distinctions must be respected, and that, while the voice of the universal is important, it cannot be given absolute priority over the individual. The rights of the individual must be respected in order to be free. Only then can society become truly self-conscious, which is to say, humanity recognizes that it is responsible for its reality, and the consequences of this truth. 


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